An Excerpt Adapted from the Introduction of:
A Radiant Birth: Advent Readings for a Bright Season
Leslie Leyland Fields
& Paul J. Willis (Eds)
An Invitation: Behold!
Our holidays had always been muted, sparse. There were no family gatherings to miss. There was never any money for presents. One year when we were young, my mother had a quarter to spend on each of us six kids. And we were not church people. What was there to celebrate then—our poverty? My father without a job and no prospects? This would be better, then. And there were compensations. Two of those Decembers my mother and the six of us loaded our tents and sleeping bags into our old Country Squire station wagon and drove to Florida to camp for two weeks in the sun. Who needed presents when we came back with a tan?
Not celebrating surely made me more spiritual.
When, as a teenager, I discovered that a Savior had been born even for me, everything changed—except Christmas. My homegrown asceticism wasn’t easily dislodged. I could not reconcile the unending holiday muzak and gaudy consumerism with God’s entrance into the world. Shouldn’t we be fasting instead of feasting? Shouldn’t we be holy instead of happy?
Then I married. Several decades, a husband, and six children later, I am the magic merry godmother of all things Advent: light the fireplace, cut down the tallest tree, hang every ornament, set the table with a dozen candles, invite the neighbors, write plays, host open houses, make cookies for the sick, send shoe boxes overseas, make presents with the kids, and do it all with ribbons, sprinkles, carols, a real Christmas goose, and homemade paper of course! Most of all, don’t collapse until after New Year’s and Epiphany. And above all, perform it all with a holy mien, a contagious cheer, and a gentle, quiet spirit inviting Christ anew into your weary heart.
And every year I fail. Every year, come December, I vow to do better and still end up hosting these same uninvited guests— exhaustion, guilt, inadequacy, perfectionism, anxiety, failure— who push through my doors and shadow my every move. Maybe my mother was right. Maybe we should just let the baubly hullabaloo pass by our doors entirely. How much simpler and maybe more spiritual the season would be!
Don’t we all do this? We all bring our complicated family histories to the season, which we live out in the midst of a noisy culture hawking its own version of celebration, and some of us add to that cacophony our local church culture, with its own peculiarities and traditions. Are the holy days supposed to be this hard?
No. Let’s make it easier. Paul Willis and I are here with twenty-four others, wise guides all who will help shepherd us through the mistletoe wickets of the season. Let us start right now by turning around and looking behind us for a moment. How did the ancients in the faith observe the Advent season? Consider the first Christmas sermon preserved and passed down through the centuries. It was preached in Antioch in AD 386 by St. John Chrysostom, a priest who later became the Bishop of Constantinople. Can you see him standing in a cathedral, the gathered sitting beneath him? How did he begin? “Behold a new and wondrous mystery!”
“Behold!” Were they missing it already so soon, the wonder that “He who is, is born”? The miracle that “He who is above, now for our redemption dwells here below”? With eloquence and beauty and likely a measure of thunder, St. John called his listeners to holy attention.
Are we listening? One thousand six hundred and thirty-seven years have passed since that first sermon. More than two millennia now since God split the night with angels and delivered a bloody mewling infant from the body of a teenager. We try not to forget. We’ve created an elaborate web of remembrance and celebration. We hope we’re doing enough. We wonder if we remember wonder. As the years go by, we behold through dimming eyes.
This is why we’re here. We are here in these pages to behold, together, anew. We are following our namesake. All of us in these pages belong or have belonged to the Chrysostom Society, an informal gathering of writers of faith. St. John spoke so eloquently, so passionately that he was named Chrysostom, meaning “golden tongued.” We do not claim such eloquence, but we do as he did: twenty-six of us here use our pens to call ourselves and others to attention one more time. To behold—again. To hear the good news—again. To know hope—again. We offer up these poems, short stories, essays, and meditations as a choir of voices singing the “tidings of great joy” again.
What makes life worthwhile is having a big enough objective, something which catches our imagination and lays hold of our allegiance; and this the Christian has in a way that no other person has. For what higher, more exalted, and more compelling goal can there be than to know God?
From another standpoint, however, we have not as yet said very much. When we speak of knowing God, we are using a verbal formula, and formulas are like checks; they are no good unless we know how to cash them. What are we talking about when we use the phrase knowing God? A special sort of emotion? Shivers down the back? A dreamy, off-the-ground, floating feeling? Tingling thrills and exhilaration, such as drug takers seek? Or is knowing God a special sort of intellectual experience? Does one hear a voice? see a vision? find strange trains of thought coursing through one’s mind? or what? These matters need discussing, especially since, according to Scripture, this is a region in which it is easy to be fooled, and to think you know God when you do not. We pose the question, then: what sort of activity, or event, is it that can properly be described as “knowing God”?
Reading for the Common Good
From ERB Editor Christopher Smith
"This book will inspire, motivate and challenge anyone who cares a whit about the written word, the world of ideas, the shape of our communities and the life of the church."
-Karen Swallow Prior
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